L.B.: Nice people finish last

Left Behind, pp. 59-66

Over the next several pages we find something new in Left Behind — sympathetic characters.

We meet three new people in these pages. None of them is particularly important and each serves mainly to move along the plot and to provide some helpful (and unsubtle) exposition. But LaHaye and Jenkins also want us to think of these minor characters as nice people.

The first is the suddenly, providentially appearing doctor who shows up to treat Buck Williams’ bleeding scalp.

He doesn’t come across as sympathetic to the readers, but that’s only because the readers — unlike the authors — still remember that just outside the airport club where the doctor is lounging about is a scene of human disaster and suffering desperately in need of medical attention.

Bracket that, as the authors do, and the doctor is a nice enough guy. He’s a little curt, perhaps, but in a world-weary way that’s kind of likeable.

Next up is a character we meet via Buck’s e-mail, “Steve Plank’s secretary, the matronly Marge Potter.” (So for those of you keeping score at home, that’s four female characters we’ve met by name so far: 1 ingenue; 2 madonnas; 1 whore.) Via e-mail, at least, she seems like a nice woman. Her expository note also tips us off that “nice people” is meant to be something of a theme in this section:

I hoped and prayed you’d be all right. Have you noticed it seems to have struck the innocents? Everyone we know who’s gone is either a child or a very nice person. On the other hand, some truly wonderful people are still here. I’m glad you’re one of them …

A couple pages later we’re back with Rayford Steele, hitching his way the last few miles to his suburban home. He encounters another very nice person, a “woman of about 40″ who gives rides to strangers.

Why this sudden rash of nice people doing nice things and talking about niceness?

L&J here are offering the first hints of something they will explore in more detail later, but their basic point is the Calvinist doctrine that salvation is a matter of grace, not of works. They take this to mean that there will be many nice people and even good people among the unsaved who are left behind.

Like many American evangelical Christians, L&J would defend this idea by citing Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast …”

Like many American evangelical Christians, they will also steadfastly avoid citing — or even reading — the rest of that paragraph: “… For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

The difficulty of reading verses 8 and 9 of Ephesians 2 without ever reading verse 10 is nowhere near as complicated as the gymnastics required for some of the selective omissions L&J have in store later in the series. Consider the complexity of reading Matthew 25:31-34 and also verse 46, without ever reading the 11 verses in between. Or reading Revelation 20:11-12a, 13a and 14-15 without ever reading the second half of those two verses.

Fear of a doctrine of “works righteousness” — salvation through good works — has led to a fear of good works themselves. This is not unique to L&J, although they do exhibit a particularly virulent strain of the disease. They believe the road to Hell is paved not with good intentions, but with good works.

Although this Protestant phobia of “works” derives from Calvin, the reformer himself wouldn’t have recognized it. His doctrine that “salvation is grace; ethics is gratitude” has been Americanized into “It’s not what you do; it’s who you know.”

As we will see in the chapters ahead — with their pornographic depictions of religious conversion — L&J’s soteriology is even further removed from that of the Reformation. Ultimately for L&J, salvation is not a matter of who you know, but of what you know. Left Behind isn’t Calvinist. It’s gnostic.

We’ll see much more in the coming pages about the divorce of faith and ethics. That separation is a major theme in this book.

  • cjmr

    Wasn’t it Martin Luther who said, “Faith, without works, is dead.”?

  • Erik

    “Faith without works is dead” is from James’ epistle (2.26).
    Thanks for clarifying Calvin from the extreme misinterpretation with which we’re more familiar, Mr. Clark; there’s definitely room for good works (as a sign of gratitude, not as a means for justification) in his theology. So too with Luther (for similar reasons), though he was so appalled and frightened by the prospect of justification by works (how can a sinner ever do enough?) that he wanted James excised from the NT.

  • Mnemosyne

    I once won an argument with an evangelist (in the sense that he walked away and stopped trying to convert me) by pointing out that there’s a verse that says you will not be saved by works ALONE. It doesn’t say you’re excused from doing good works. It says you can’t rely solely on them.
    Of course, then we’re brushing against those annoying people who keep trying to convince me that, as a Roman Catholic, I’m not a “real” Christian and will be taking the express bus to Hell, but that’s another matter.

  • Mnemosyne

    I once won an argument with an evangelist (in the sense that he walked away and stopped trying to convert me) by pointing out that there’s a verse that says you will not be saved by works ALONE. It doesn’t say you’re excused from doing good works. It says you can’t rely solely on them.
    Of course, then we’re brushing against those annoying people who keep trying to convince me that, as a Roman Catholic, I’m not a “real” Christian and will be taking the express bus to Hell, but that’s another matter.

  • Mnemosyne

    Sorry for the double post. Feh.

  • carla

    I was at a Catholic funeral mass two weeks ago (hey! now I’ve seen transubstantiation in action!) and it was interesting–the funerals for family members have all been memorials of one kind or another (we’re atheists), and the only other funerals I’ve attended have been Jewish–all that talk of resurrection is really just not there. I was discussing this with some friends–one’s Jewish, one was raised Zoroastrian (!), one was raised Christian Scientist, and one was mainline Protestant (we handball players are an eclectic lot . . .), and it was interesting listening to the Protestant query the Jew about the afterlife, or absence thereof, in Jewish thought. And I’ve had people ask me why I would ever “behave,” given that I don’t believe there’s some kind of reward/punishment waiting for me after I die. This is a very long-winded way of commenting how that notion of an afterlife structures one’s actions in this life, which, of course, is the point of the LB series, I suppose.

  • carla

    I was at a Catholic funeral mass two weeks ago (hey! now I’ve seen transubstantiation in action!) and it was interesting–the funerals for family members have all been memorials of one kind or another (we’re atheists), and the only other funerals I’ve attended have been Jewish–all that talk of resurrection is really just not there. I was discussing this with some friends–one’s Jewish, one was raised Zoroastrian (!), one was raised Christian Scientist, and one was mainline Protestant (we handball players are an eclectic lot . . .), and it was interesting listening to the Protestant query the Jew about the afterlife, or absence thereof, in Jewish thought. And I’ve had people ask me why I would ever “behave,” given that I don’t believe there’s some kind of reward/punishment waiting for me after I die. This is a very long-winded way of commenting how that notion of an afterlife structures one’s actions in this life, which, of course, is the point of the LB series, I suppose.

  • carla

    Something screwed up there–sorry about the double posting . . .

  • David Barrett

    Personally, I don’t worry about the afterlife. I know I’m safe no matter what I do (save do the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the holy spirit) because I know Jesus.
    My take on the whole faith/works thing is that you only need faith to be saved. We can never do enough to earn our freedom, it can only come from grace. That said, what kind of faith is it that does not compell you to do good works? Good works should spring from your faith, if you truly believe what you claim to believe.
    Jesus wants us to do good. He wants us to do His work. If we claim to respect His authority, as Christians do, then we should feel compelled to do good.
    If we don’t, then our faith is dead.

  • Keith

    Fear of the afterlife and what awaits us is the lynchpin of organized religion. It’s what keeps people in line, doing what they’re told by corrupt priest kings. This is probably the only implicit theme in LB, as it’s an implicit theme in most Christian Authoritarian works. I’m always amused by the whole argument that if you don’t believe in Hell then you have no reason to behave like a decent human being, as if being nice to people and trying to make this life better is such an alien concept to the religious mind. Unfortunately, it seems to be all too alien in America, in either the religious or secular mind, these days.

  • aunursa

    Actually according to L&J (and made clear in later books) it’s NOT what you know. Example: Bruce Barnes did know and yet was left behind.

  • Erik

    Keith, I’m a little put out by your assertion that “fear of the afterlife [. . .] is the lynchpin of organized religion.” Couldn’t the lynchpin (at least occasionally) be hope? Hope in the knowledge that God is working to redeem the world? That as redeemed people we can participate in that same effort? That as redeemed people we need to participate in that work?
    Moreover, Oscar Romero and Jrgen Moltmann, for example, seem to view religion (Christianity, in particular) and belief as something that frees us to act, not as a form of social control.
    Religion can be problematic, sure, but that’s no reason to issume (illogically) that religion is inherently evil or oppressive.

  • JoXn Costello

    aunursa: Even the demons believe — and they shudder! (From the Epistle of James).
    Apropos nothing — check out the Left Behind boardgame! Apparently there are pre- and post-rapture phases of gameplay, but you can’t win preemptively by taking your piece off the board when the rapture comes.
    http://shop.store.yahoo.com/christianfun/lefbehboarga.html

  • Patrick Mullins

    Keith–I couldn’t agree more, and definitely think it can’t be said often enough. Even if there is some kind of conscious afterlife (I don’t believe there is, since there is no conscious pre-life except in the delusions of reincarnatees), the “reward” of it should not be in any way the major reason for decent ethics in THIS world.
    However, plenty of fine (and great) people have believed in and continue to believe in an afterlife, and also do live exemplary lives here. I think the LB people can look forward to extremely undistinguished afterlives (if any), given that their earthly existences are so pedestrian

  • emjaybee

    Actually, I would say it’s not what you know but what you say. As in “I accept Jesus Christ into my heart to be my lord and savior.” Though I have occasionally read Christian fiction that made it ok just to *think* that phrase, or some variation of it. Which is good, otherwise mute people would be doomed to hell.
    And yes, I too was always confused as to why the threat of Hell was needed to keep us all in line; there are lots of good reasons to help others that don’t require graphic descriptions of skewered sinners roasting for all eternity.

  • Christian

    Slacktivist, I have no idea what you’re talking about when you write: “L&J here are offering the first hints of something they will explore in more detail later, but their basic point is the Calvinist doctrine that salvation is a matter of grace, not of works. They take this to mean that there will be many nice people and even good people among the unsaved who are left behind.”
    –To refer to Lahaye and Calvin in the same breath as agreeing with each other is almost beyond comprehension, given that Lahaye is a dispensational premillennialist, and Calvin was an amillennialist. Lahaye is on the record as rejecting Calvin’s end-times theology as “unbiblical.”
    Your comment about Calvin’s view of salvation is another matter, but I would guess that Lahaye would be *very uncomfortable* with anything Calvin has to say on such an important matter.

  • trox

    I’d second Christian’s concern above. I was raised in a very Calvinistic Presbyterian church (ARP), and I didn’t recognize any of what I learned growing up in the Left Behind books, and I somehow made it through a number of them (5 I think).
    That said, please keep up the good work deconstructing these almost unreadable books for the rest of us.

  • aunursa

    Emjaybee, L&J eventually make their position clear, that it’s not what you think or say, but what you accept.
    Some characters in later volumes are portrayed as having believed in Jesus, but not having “accepted” him into their heart.

  • Michael

    How do you blaspheme the holy spirit, anyway? Can you do it on a blog?

  • David Barrett

    I dunno exactly. Check Mark 3, particularly 3:28-30 (and Luke 12:9-11), for the mention. My first guess would be that it’s knowing that the Holy Spirit is at work, and calling it evil; it amounts to calling God evil, at least in that passage.

  • Donald Johnson

    The “Left Behind” books are amusingly bad, but Fred has finally hit on one interesting theme that pops up in the series in different ways (yes, I’ve read or skimmed all of them). There are nice non-Christians all through the series and while some end up being saved, others don’t. Past a certain point, you see, you can’t be saved, even if you want to repent. Bad as the series is, the writers are honest in showing the horrifying implications of their theology. But at the rate Fred is going, he’ll get to the really interesting cases sometime around 2010. Most of the books are simply on the level of the average trashy best-seller (I’ve read a few of those too) and don’t deserve this careful exegesis. I think Fred is reading too much into some of the things that happen and bad as the books are, I don’t necessarily agree that the writers meant to convey all the bad ideas Fred attributes to them. But the “good people who go to hell” theme is definitely there. Note that Marge Potter (I can’t remember that character) apparently was the praying sort, but that didn’t help her. Presumably she thought of herself as a Christian, but wasn’t “saved”. On the other hand, I can’t remember, but I think the Pope might have been raptured–if so, that would show a bit more openness in the modern fundie mind than you’d have found some years ago.

  • carla

    Actually, for some it’s fear about the afterlife. For others, though, it’s fear of ambiguity: I’ve met many people who embrace organized religion because it gives them explanations and makes the world orderly, whereas a lack of deities would make the world disorderly and chaotic in ways they would find profoundly unsettling. The LB books seem to add a kind of retribution on top of it that is really pretty disturbing–kind of an ultimate parental smack-down, and the saved get to say neener-neener-neener.
    There’s a third group, though, and I count several very close friends among them, who do not seem motivated by either of these things. Rather, they grew up believing that there is a deity, and he is compassionate and loving and so on. Some of them believe in an afterlife, others I’m not so sure. I think some people are comforted by the notion that dead loved ones are still available for a family reunion at some later date, but I don’t think it structures their daily lives in any meaningful sense. And they are all active in the community of their churches, which I think means that their churches provide them with a structured way to truly reach out and love one another. I’m not trying to provide purely functional reasons for these behaviors–I recognize that others’ beliefs are quite important to them–but I have to admit that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me otherwise.

  • none

    Aww, and here I expected L&J to paint post-Rapture America like Mad Max and Escape from LA’s unwanted lovechild.

  • Nate

    Aww, and here I expected L&J to paint post-Rapture America like Mad Max and Escape from LA’s unwanted lovechild.

  • Teaflax

    Argh! Not you too, Fred! “A couple pages later”? I see more and more really competent writers like the generally wonderful Mr. Clarke here, fall into this spoken-word trap which does nothing but confuse the eye and muddle the point.
    What’s next? “He’s one the best in his field”, “He took money out his pocket”, “Don’t miss this chance a lifetime”?

  • Patrick Mullins

    Teaflax–what a sight for sore ears! I thought “a couple beers” was considered totally acceptable by now. Mayor Bloomberg said “I graduated Columbia.”
    Where, oh where, can we still hear “different from?” Some of the newer things are better, though. “I’m outta here” is funnier than “I’m gettin’ outta here,” especially if you hear it said months in advance.

  • pablo

    I’ve never understood how fundies can interprut everything literally with the exception of Revelations. Why is Noah’s flood literal but the beast with 10 horns is an alliance of 10 nations and not say a 10 horned monster stalking the land?

  • pablo

    YIKES! I mean INTERPET.

  • aunursa

    Donald,
    In the next volume we learn that the Pope was raptured, but it’s actually a matter of tolerance. Left Behind is actually considered by many to be anti-Catholic. The pope, we learn, was actually a closet Protestant, who wanted to reform the Church along the lines of Luther.
    The new pope turns out to be a slimeball in cahoots with the “anti-Christ”, who appoints him to be the leader of the evil one-world religion.

  • Beth

    “…so that no one can boast.” That’s the part that “faith, not works” Christians never seem to hear. Or maybe they hear it as, “so boast about your ‘holiness’ instead.”

  • bellatrys

    Pablo, I have that very same question about art books who praise ancient artists for their great realism in drawing deer and mammoths and turtles, and then praise them for their wonderful *imaginations* in drawing giant guys with horns and three heads and lightning coming out of their ears, in pictoglyphs.
    There’s a bit of comfortable assuming going on there…

  • Nigel

    I wonder if LaHaye and Jenkins noticed that the Bible says half the world can be saved by having babies?! 1 Timothy 2:15 “The woman will be saved through childbearing…”
    So obviously its not who you know, but how well you know them. Nudge nudge wink wink!

  • Mike

    Hey, why’ve the LB posts stopped? They’re hysterical. Keep ‘em coming! Your adoring public demands more! Here we are now, entertain us!

  • none

    elections. if bush wins, fred can compare the events in the story to realife events to see how much sociopathic evangelicalism the worlds requires atm.
    If kerry wins, the country can sigh a big sigh of relief, pick it self up and join the national equivelent of Alchoholics Anonymous after apologising to it’s poor abused wife, that sweet lady liberty, and beg her forgiveness for all it’s evils of the last 4 years.

  • Nigel

    I am missing the LB commentary too.
    Can we have more please?

  • sophia8

    Bellatrys, care to tell us where we can find these pictoglyphs of “giant guys with horns and three heads and lightning coming out of their ears”? I haven’t seen any. Those ancient artists were pretty accurate in what they drew – mainly animals, hunting and hunting rituals. No three-headed monsters, no lightening coming out of ears. No dinosaurs either, come to think of it.

  • Rebekah

    Please continue the critiques! They are wonderful… don’t give up on them.

  • Scott

    “Please continue the critiques!”
    Yea, I’d certainly like to read more about the fictional anti-Christ and take a break from the real one in the White House. :-)

  • Scott

    FYI
    http://www.counterpunch.com/urban11182004.html
    Bush, the Neocons and Evangelical Christian Fiction
    America, “Left Behind”
    By HUGH URBAN
    “Is [Jesus] gonna kill a bunch of people here, like He is over there?”
    “I’m afraid He is. If they’re working for the Antichrist, they’re in serious trouble.”
    – Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Glorious Appearing: End of Days
    I see things this way: The people who did this act on Americaare evil people. As a nation of good folk, we’re going to hunt them downand we will bring them to justice.
    – George W. Bush, September 25, 2001
    As a professor of comparative religion and cultural studies, I have long been fascinated by the strange intersections between religion, politics and popular culture. One of the most striking such intersections occurred to me this summer as I sat down to read the twelfth and last volume of the wildly popular Left Behind series by evangelical preacher Tim LaHaye and novelist Jerry Jenkins. For those who haven’t yet had a chance to read any of LaHaye and Jenkin’s series, the story is basically an evangelical interpretation of the Book of Revelation set in the context of contemporary global politics: the Rapture has taken place, the Antichrist has taken control of the U.N. and created a single global economy, while a small group of American-led believers battles the forces of evil in a showdown in Jerusalem.
    At the same time that I was immersed in this entertaining mixture of Stephen King-esque thrills and fundamentalist rhetoric, I had also been reading much of the recent literature on the Neoconservative movement and its powerful role in the Bush administration. As Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke have persuasively argued in their recent study, America Alone, the election of George W. Bush and the confusion following 9/11 allowed a small but radical group of intellectuals to seize the reins of U.S. foreign policy. Led by figures like Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the members of the Project for a New American Century, the Neocons have been able to put into effect a long-held plan for asserting a U.S. global hegemony, in large part by dominating the Middle East and its oil resources….

  • Susie from Philly

    Here’s where I think they miss the point: If you really do have faith – if you’ve been touched by grace – how could you NOT do God’s work?
    I think the lack of works is a pretty strong argument for a lack of grace.

  • bellatrys

    I just noticed that someone in a comment I missed awhile back asked skeptically about petroglyphs with bizarre creatures – they first came to my attention from a friend who traveled out there and brought back some photos, but here are some examples online of Anasazi drawings showing “spirit creatures” and “kachinas” – dismiss them as mythical and known and categorize them, and keep them in safe pigeonholes of academia and folklore, until crazy fantasy authors like Neil Gaiman and KD Wentworth let them loose again…

  • Dan

    Just a little article I came across at the “Parish” blog site:
    “Hank Hanegraaff Gave Tim LaHaye the People’s Elbow!
    This story is too good to pass up. LaHaye, alleged author of the Left Behind Series, and Hank Hanegraaff, the man who refers to himself as the Bible Answer Man and lives in a palace near San Diego where he suffers for Jesus, are having a feud about the End Times. Sort of. The Left Behind Series, as you may know, espouses a view of eschatology known as dispensational premillenialism, or what I like to call silly talk. Hanegraaff has hired himself a writer named Sigmund Brouwer to help write a series of books that showcase the preterist view of eschatology, focusing especially on The Revelation of John. Preterism, a term coined in opposition to historicism, asserts that The Revelation was a coded document for the first century and that all the “prophecies” are in fact not prophecies of some future day, but a relating of current events. Under this scenario, and it’s one I tend to favor as it’s very similar to my eschatology of preference, amillenialism, the tribulation, mark of the beast, anti-Christ, and all the symbology point to the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the suffering of the church under Nero, who is the beast, and the second coming is pictured as the judgment of Christ on Jerusalem for rejecting the Messiah. It makes the NT record a great deal more cohesive and has the added benefit of not making Paul and Jesus both look dead wrong about “prophecy.”
    LaHaye is furious that Tyndale, the company that has made a mint off Left Behind, picked up the series. He said he feels stunned and betrayed. “They are going to take the money we made for them and promote this nonsense,” he said. Nonsense? Tim, have you read your own books? Hanegraaff rightly points out that LaHaye’s view of the end times is a bit of a novelty; they came about through the deranged teachings of Edward Irving, a 19th century Scottish churchman with a penchant for speaking in tongues. Darby, Thompson, and Ryrie all helped spread the teachings in their study Bibles.
    Tyndale said they’re just trying to represent different perspectives. Hmm…maybe they want to make a shit-pot full of money too? Just a thought. The two are exchanging insults and nasty words about each other and their respective hermeneutics. My favorite quote is from LaHaye though:
    “There are 85 percent of evangelical Christians who believe as we do. We’ll see if they will be successful with the 15 percent that don’t.”
    A couple things stand out about this. Just because 85 percent of people think you’re right, doesn’t make you right. You’re supposed to be a Christian, Tim. You should know that from Sunday School. Second, 85 percent don’t think you’re right. You and Jenkins have had a lot to do with the resurrection of this silly talk embodied in the Left Behind series, but it by no means encompasses 85 percent of the church. LaHaye is also underestimating Hanegraaff’s popularity and influence. The man calls himself the Bible Answer Man without a trace of irony and people call his show anyway. He’ll move some books. Believe that.
    I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with Hanegraaff on this one. People are better off to completely ignore the Left Behind series and read Hanegraaff’s new series, and I say that sight unseen. They’ll get a better lesson in church history, hermeneutics, and the role of apocalyptic literature.”

  • Nathan

    It’s official: the Left Behind thread is dead. I guess I’ll have to go watch the movie! ;-)

  • patter

    No, Nathan, don’t do it, man! Be strong! Uncle Fred’s promised us a new LB post. Just hang on a few days longer and watch something inspiring and uplifting in the interim, like “The Real Gilligan’s Island”….

  • TheRequisiteJew

    To hijack the thread to it’s original topic:
    I find it both repulsive and frightening that people think we should, and only can, do good because we are offered punishment and rewards later.
    What happened to being good for good’s sake? Don’t ya think G-d would rather have us say “I helped because it was the right thing to do” than “I helped to get into heaven quicker”?

  • David Van Nostrand

    K,
    New here…just a thought…Evangelical..
    “Blessed are you when men revile you and say all manner of evil things against you falsely for my Name’s sake”
    Not sure what scripture verse this is offhand..
    But Christ doesn’t say u r “blessed” for being arrogant, rude, self-righteous, or even good here. He says you’re notably “blessed” if your reception by most people is rejection. NOT for the nature of your works..one way or the other..but merely for his Name’s sake ..i.e. what you believe alone..what you THINK.

  • dave

    but merely for his Name’s sake ..i.e. what you believe alone..what you THINK.
    Hmm. How does “merely for his Name’s sake” automatically equal “what you believe alone, what you think”?
    Could it not just as reasonably mean “for following Christ”? For not forsaking what he taught or who he was?
    I think the faith/works dichotomy is something you’re adding to the text here.
    And, no offense, but it’s a weak argument to quote small bits of scripture out of context. The writers of the bible did not actually break their words up into passages and number them. Scripture references are there for reference, not for deriving meaning.
    You quote Matthew 5:10, btw. One of the Beatitudes. I’d recommend you read the whole chapter, paying especial attention around Matthew 5:16.


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